UPDATE: Although surprisingly few figures from the theatre world have commented publicly on this story (as vociferous as they often are) apart from theatre critics Ben Brantley, Michael Billington and Aleks Sierz, the literary world is a different matter. Below, a few purported letters to Benno Schmidt: The first from novelist Michael Cunningham, who wishes to return his honorary degree to CUNY, and the second from literary critic Harold Bloom, who also seeks to see his old friend Benno again “in this life.” These first appeared on the Facebook page I linked to in today’s original post.
Dear Dr. Schmidt:
Like many others, I was shocked and dismayed to hear about the treatment Tony Kushner received at the hands of the CUNY Board of Trustees on May 2. Jeffrey S. Weisenfeld’s opposition to Kushner’s honorary degree was not only malicious and inappropriate, it was based partly on untruths and partly on phrases taken out of context. The fact that a majority of the board members – the fact that any board members at all – supported Weisenfeld turned an unfortunate incident into a shameful one.
An academic institution as generous and venerable as CUNY should not countenance the public humiliation of any artist, let alone one of Kushner’s caliber and courage. Kushner has done more than most of us to combine high art – many of us consider it great art –with profound and vital socio-political sentiments. Kushner’s plays have done what so few of us have managed in our own work: it has helped raise public consciousness, without ever descending into agitprop or screed. To deny him an honorary degree because certain members of the board disagree with some of his political views is a chilling indictment of the freedom of expression CUNY has always championed.
I was on the faculty at Brooklyn College for six years, and have always felt honored to be a member of a great institution. I received an honorary doctorate in 2009, of which I have been enormously proud. I feel, however, that in the light of the incident on May 2, I have no choice but to return it. I do so with real regrets.
It is a sad day indeed.
It is ironic that we get in touch again about the Kushner outrage, because I still hope to see you in this life. As an American Jewish literary critic, and as an old friend of Tony Kushner, I find the CUNY action absurd. Tony is a passionate Jew, who gratifies me by saying I am his rabbi. As his literary rabbi, I affirm the magnificence of his dramatic achievement. As your old friend, I urge you to help undo this misbegotten matter.
With ward regards to both my former students, your beautiful daughters,
Finally, there’s this, from Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and several other books; she’ll also be “sainted” by Rev. Bill Talen at this Sunday’s Mother’s Day service of the Church of Earthalujah at Theatre 80 in the East Village:
Dear Trustees of CUNY,
In 2004 I was proud to receive an honorary degree from John Jay College in recognition, as I recall, for my work exposing poverty and promoting social justice. At the time, it did not occur to me to question John Jay’s qualifications for awarding such an honor. But today, having read of the Trustees’ vote to deny a similar honorary degree to playwright and activist Tony Kushner– as well as Jeffrey Wiesenfeld’s comment in the New York Times suggesting that Palestinians “are not human”—I do have to question both your qualifications and the legitimacy of the honorary degree I was given.
Hence my decision to renounce my own honorary degree, which I will return to you if I can find it. Please expunge me from your record of past honorees.
Overnight the New York Times jumped the CUNY/Tony Kushner story from the arts to the news section. This morning Sharon Otterman’s story, which appeared on page A23 of the New York edition, brings us up-to-date on recent developments here, and Prof. Ellen Schrecker of Yeshiva University, whose letter to CUNY Board of Trustees chair Benno Schmidt I highlighted yesterday, has written this essay, explaining her decision to return her own CUNY honorary degree in the wake of the controversy, for the Inside Higher Ed Web site. And just recently, critic Michael Billington compares Kushner’s controversial reputation with that of Harold Pinter in the Guardian, concluding:
I still find the withdrawal of Kushner’s proposed degree deeply depressing. It seems to be based on a totally inaccurate representation of Kushner’s actual views. It denies the fact that a playwright is a citizen as well as an artist and has a perfect right to express an opinion on public issues. Above all, it undermines the idea that, in a nation such as the USA, academia is the last bastion of intellectual freedom. In the end, it simply makes CUNY look puny.
CUNY itself seems to be half-heartedly and unconvincingly circling the wagons around the trustees’ action earlier this week. A statement issued yesterday by the Board of Trustees office notes that the decision to rescind the offer of an honorary degree to the playwright “should not be interpreted as reflecting on Mr. Kushner’s accomplishments”; a rather unhelpful and irrelevant statement, since nobody on either side of the debate is arguing that it was the quality of his accomplishments that led to the decision. In an earlier story by Patrick Healy, Jay Hershenson, CUNY’s senior vice chancellor for university relations and secretary of the trustees, said, “The CUNY board of trustees acted independently and exercised its authority” — a description of the problem but hardly a ringing, convincing defense of the board. (Healy also reported that, “Responding to Mr. Kushner’s charge of slander, Mr. Hershenson repeated his comment,” a stonewalling which didn’t help much either.) The Times has been busy following up this story; there’s an interview by Jim Dwyer with trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld here. And finally, Ben Brantley reviewed Kushner’s new play The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures today here.
Mr. Kushner must be very tired. Because it is uncertain that Kushner would now accept an honorary degree from CUNY, at least this year, the question of the board reversing its earlier decision has become somewhat … well, somewhat academic, appropriately. He has asked for an apology, and whether he should accept that as well is entirely up to him. For more news on the issue, there’s a continuously updated Facebook page here, as well as this blog dedicated to the “Kushner Crisis” at the CUNY Graduate Center Advocate.
Today’s Friday video will be unavoidably cancelled due to a few glitches at the YouTube server. It will return next week.